What Goes Up at the Tour, Descends Dangerously Fast

Pascal Guyot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
For racers on bikes traveling 40 miles per hour, the road descending from la Rochette into Gap is terrifying.
Published: July 16, 2013

GAP, France — The road descending from la Rochette into Gap is picture-book pretty. A valley dotted with red-tile roofs and tawny wheat fields opens before it. The snowy crags of the high Alps rise behind. Rustic farmhouses and purple wildflowers line its shoulders.

Overall leader Christopher Froome of Britain, left, and Spain’s Alberto Contador, right, sped down a pass in the last kilometers of the sixteenth stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday.


For hikers, it is idyllic. For drivers, tricky. For racers on bikes traveling 40 miles per hour, terrifying. The road is twisting and steep, too narrow for compact cars to pass, with switchbacks that arrive shockingly fast. Innumerable ridges and barely-filled potholes in the pavement jolt even heavy vehicles.

It was here during the 2003 Tour de France that a top rider, Joseba Beloki, let fly, hoping to drop the race leader, Lance Armstrong. Instead, his front wheel slid on tar softened by the July heat and sent him tumbling. The crash effectively ended Beloki’s promising career and provided a stark reminder of an old saying: races are rarely won on descents, but they can be lost.

On Tuesday, as the 16th stage of the Tour came storming through these Alpine foothills, the dangerous descent from la Rochette almost took another big victim: Chris Froome of Sky, the race leader, who went off the road while swerving around the third-place rider, Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff.

In a near replay of the 2003 crash, Froome had been chasing Contador after the Spanish rider had tried to pedal away before the summit of the Col de Manse, hoping to trim his deficit and, perhaps, force the leader into a rash move. But when Contador momentarily lost control on a hairpin turn, Froome was forced into the grass.

Neither man was hurt and they leapt back on their bikes to finish with another group of contenders who, following Tour etiquette, had slowed to let them catch up. As a result the top three places in the race remained unchanged, with Froome retaining the yellow jersey, followed by Bauke Mollema of Belkin 4 minutes 14 seconds back and Contador 4:25 behind.

But after the race Froome made clear his displeasure with Contador for taking chances on an unsafe descent. “I personally think teams are starting to get desperate now and therefore taking uncalculated risks,” he told reporters.

Rui Costa, a Portuguese rider with Movistar, won the stage after joining a breakaway of about two dozen riders that built a lead of more than seven minutes on the main field. Costa, who has won the last two Tours of Switzerland, accelerated away from the group on the final climb and won by 42 seconds.

On Wednesday, a hilly time trial is expected to play to Froome’s strengths. But the stage is also likely to feature a fierce battle among the riders trying to reach the podium in Paris. Thursday will provide perhaps the most awaited stage of the Tour: a double ascent of towering Alpe d’Huez.

Between the two climbs, the riders will face a treacherous descent, off the Col de Sarrene along a back road that has never been used in the Tour before. Several riders, including Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, have raised concerns about the safety of the road, which is bumpy and lacks guard rails.

“It is a very dangerous descent,” Froome said Tuesday. “It’s not smooth, that’s for sure. There aren’t any barriers on the corners. If you go over the corner, you will fall down a long way.”

“Like we’ve seen today, this race is far from over,” he added. “One incident, one mechanical, or one crash in the wrong moment and your Tour can be over.”

Indeed, at this point in the three-week race, when the leader is trying to stay safe while his rivals are trying to pressure him into dangerous mistakes, descents become all the more crucial. Yet, descending remains the forgotten stepchild of bike racing, with far more attention given to climbing, sprinting and time trialing.

To casual observers, riders flying at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour downhill may appear to be taking a break after a hard climb. But far from it. With so many dangers to worry about, including gravel, holes, wet spots and unexpectedly sharp turns, the riders must remain intensely focused. A crash would not just cost a rider time; it would probably end his race.

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“Descents are tough on the riders,” said Michael Barry, a former Grand Tour rider from Toronto who retired from the sport last year. “It’s not like you can relax and coast. The television doesn’t capture the speed the riders are descending at, how close they are to each other. And how fast they accelerate to catch each other.”

Though Beloki’s crash is the best known cautionary tale about descending, it is not the only case of a downhill affecting a race. In the 2011 Tour, Andy Schleck, a top contender, not known for his descending skills, lost time on the climb to la Rochette and then even more on the descent. He finished second that year to Cadel Evans.

And in May, the reigning Tour de France champion, Bradley Wiggins, lost time while descending with great caution after a crash during the Giro d’Italia. Wiggins, who is not riding in this year’s Tour, dropped out of the Giro, citing problems with his descending as a reason.

But descents can also work in favor of those who are bold and skillful enough to attack them. After losing valuable seconds on a climb during this year’s Tour of Switzerland, Peter Sagan of Cannondale regained time by descending aggressively. His swift descent allowed him to contest the final sprint, which he won.

Sagan is best known as a sprinter, but he is also widely considered among the best descenders on the Tour. Weight — as in, more of it — helps. At about 160 pounds, Sagan carries at least 10 pounds more than some of the skinniest climbers. His strong bike handling skills are also essential.

But other Tour riders point to an intangible as the most important factor in descending: fearlessness.

“A huge part of it is up here,” Andrew Talansky, a 24-year-old American rider with Garmin-Sharp, said, pointing to his head. “People like Sagan are just not afraid. And part of that is confidence. If you tap your brakes at the wrong time in a corner you crash. If you think you’re going to crash, you crash.”

Talansky, who is on his first Tour de France, said he found it difficult to practice descending because, even on roads closed to car traffic, a rider never experiences the pure terror, desperation and desire that one feels in the heat of a race.

“You just wouldn’t push it quite the same because there is nobody forcing you to do that,” he said. “There’s not this: I have to be in the front here.’ ”

The techniques of descending are, in theory, simple. On straight roads, riders will try to tuck themselves into the most aerodynamic position possible, even getting out of their saddles to sit directly on their bike frames. On turns, they will search for the straightest possible lines, starting wide and then slicing across the bend to exit wide on the other side. They will barely move the handle bars, turning by leaning, and they will tap the brakes as lightly as possible.

Staying relaxed is a huge part of the skill. Fearful riders are usually stiff riders, making them more prone to the kinds of herky-jerky movements that can destabilize a bike.

Riders who are not comfortable on screaming downhills are the most likely ones to crash, Sagan said. “When you see fear in his eyes, then he’s rigid,” he said in an interview before the race.

As for his own technique? Sagan, a 23-year-old Slovak for whom English is his third language, thought for a moment before boiling it down to this: “Not risk too much and come first down.”